The vampire has been featured in oral tradition and folklore almost as long as Man has walked the Earth; the earliest depiction of a vampire to date was discovered on a cylinder seal dating back to ancient Babylon. Virtually every culture throughout the world has been terrorised by its own vampires; no other creature has been ‘so dreaded and abhorred, yet dight with such fearful fascination.’
Even today, vampires feature prominently in popular culture, addressing contemporary fears or a longing to escape from the constraints imposed by society – even if some do now sparkle. But when did they first make the transition from folklore to literature? Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, is often thought of as the ‘first’ vampire novel but it was actually preceded by several other works.
It was German writers who were the first to transform myth into fiction, but English writers such as Southey, John Stagg and John Polidori, who were influenced by their German counterparts, are best remembered for their literary vampires.
The first predatory male figure of vampire fiction, and arguably the most influential, is Lord Ruthven of John Polidori’s 1819 novella The Vampyre. Originally falsely attributed as Lord Byron’s work, the story was the first to ‘fuse the disparate elements of vampirism successfully into a coherent literary genre’ and through the protagonist, introduced contemporary Literature to what was to become the stereotypical concept of a vampire; the demon lover, simultaneously evil, dangerous, attractive and desirable.
Previous depictions had been very different. Earlier vampires had been characterized as mindless scavengers; uneducated, dirty, foul-smelling and belonging to a rural, peasant class. These were weird and repulsive supernatural entities, reminiscent of the Eastern European nosferatu and true monsters, seeking only human blood.
Polidori’s vampire was a very different creature. Without any obvious physical abnormalities (elongated canines appeared in later works of fiction), he could move freely amongst the highest ranks of enlightened society without fear of destruction. Ruthven is every inch the aristocrat, making him, perhaps, the most deadly ‘monster’ of all. Not unlike Lord Byron himself, Ruthven is described as handsome, sexually luring and mysterious: his 'form and outline were beautiful, many female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions’. He takes pleasure in seducing innocent young women and is seemingly devoid of morals, free from the constraints of ‘society’.
Polidori's work was published in numerous editions and translations; it captured the contemporary imagination and consequently the influence of The Vampyre can be seen throughout the Victorian era, notably within the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker.
Varney The Vampire
Varney the Vampire was a Victorian serialized ‘penny dreadful’ written by James Malcom Rymer and published from 1845 to 1847. Varney shares many similarities with Lord Ruthven – he has a human appearance and characteristics and associates with an aristocratic family but Varney also has fangs and hypnotic powers. A somewhat tragic figure, Varney views his vampirism as a curse.
The story is considered influential and is thought to have reached Bram Stoker; Varney, like Dracula, can eat and drink human food, though it doesn’t agree with him and he's physically very strong.
Female Vampires in Fiction
Female vampires were popularly featured in poetry throughout the nineteenth century. Frayling described their portrayal as the ‘fatal woman’, sexually predatory women using men to their own advantage. Intrinsically linked with this concept is the mythical figure of Lilith, the first wife of Adam who desired sexual dominance and left him to sleep with demons (her resulting offspring have sometimes been deemed the first vampires). The Fatal Woman theme is evident in works such as Goethe’s Bride of Corinth, Poe’s Ligeia, Tiek’s Wake not the Dead, Baudelaire’s Les Metamorphoses du Vampire and LeFanu’s Carmilla.
Wake Not The Dead
Written by Johann Luswig Tieck, Wake not the Dead was first published in English in 1823, appearing in an anthology entitled Popular Tales and Romances of the Northern Nations. Poe’s Ligeia, published in 1838, is strikingly similar. Both tales describe incredibly strong bonds of love and passion between a husband and wife that reach beyond death. The men are depicted as weak and dependant, emphasising the dominance of the vampiric protagonists, both of whom have raven hair and ebony eyes.
Brunhilda, the protagonist of Wake not the Dead, is the ultimate femme fatale: beautiful, seductive and deadly. Her husband, Walter, is so spellbound by her that he initially fails to notice the strange deaths happening all around him, or the change in his wife, who has begun avoiding sunlight. Forced to feed on human blood to stay alive, Brunhilda resorts to feeding on Walter’s children from his second marriage. This act strips her of her humanity, and capacity to love, and has connotations of the Greek Lamia, a female vampire that steals children to suck their blood. The Lamia motif is also evident in Dracula, when Lucy Westenra becomes the ‘Bloofer Lady’.
The story ends when Brunhilda transforms into a ‘monstrous serpent’ and crushes her husband to death. In most vampire fiction from this era, there is a point where the true face of the vampire is revealed and this revelation ultimately results in the vampire’s demise. Usually serpentine or hideously ghoulish, the vampire’s true form is devoid of humanity and therefore empathy on the part of the reader.
Carmilla, written by Sheridan LeFanu in 1872 similarly features a ‘strange and beautiful’ female vampire and is also steeped in erotic imagery, although this time the sexual dominance is of another woman - the narrator, Laura.
In this story the vampire has a voice and a human face, allowing another perspective to emerge: ‘this disease that invades the country is natural...All things proceed from nature - don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as nature ordains?’ Carmilla introduces the idea that vampires are part of nature and therefore neither truly evil nor supernatural; they’re just part of the food chain. This paved the way for the vampire-with-a- soul’ frequently depicted in twentieth and twenty-first century literature and is, perhaps, echoed in Dracula's desire to blend in with the mortal world.
In reality, Vlad Dracula was a fifteenth century noble renowned for his cruelty and sadism; he was not a vampire, though he reportedly did dip his bread in the blood of his victims. Titled and powerful, he was the perfect figure upon which to base the ultimate Byronic anti-hero: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Count Dracula has the high forehead and aqualine nose of his historial counterpart but also shares similarities with Lord Ruthven, Varney and several of the Fatal Women featured in nineteenth-century poetry.
Stoker published Dracula in 1897 but the story is set exactly a decade earlier, which was a year of ‘remarkable incidents by flood, by fire, by brawls, explosions and railway calamities.’ Incidents of vampirism often ‘occurred’ when society suffered; disease epidemics were often attributed to vampire attacks, making Stoker's world all the more real for his audience.
Dracula extended the image of the vampire founded by Polidori, LeFanu and Rymer and established it in popular culture. The powers attributed to Dracula have become synonymous with most fictional vampires: tremendous strength; control of the elements and animals; the ability to change shape and the lack of a reflection. Similarly, they share weaknesses, too: the necessity to sleep in a coffin; an aversion to garlic and holy water and an inability to cross running water.
The literature of the nineteenth century was particularly influential in capturing the popular imagination; the archetypal characteristics of vampires were established durng this period and even though modern fictional vampires have evolved, echoes of the first literary vampires remain today.